The Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Forensic Laboratory analyzes evidence collected during the investigation of civil and criminal violations of laws protecting consumers and marine species.
We have analyzed evidence for more than 700 civil and criminal investigations involving violations of the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and domestic seafood labeling laws and international CITES violations.
Protecting Biological Resources and Seafood Consumers
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for managing marine species in the United States. The agency’s regulations are often species- or stock-specific. We identify evidence items collected during NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement investigations in our lab. Our forensic work helps law enforcement officials evaluate potential violations.
In addition to protecting our biological resources, the NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement protects consumer interests. For example, species substitution, a type of seafood fraud, occurs when a restaurant, retail, or wholesale seafood business substitutes a species of low economic value for a species with a higher market value.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global problem representing a significant loss of resources and revenue for affected countries. The National Ocean Council Committee on IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud issued recommendations to strengthen law enforcement and provide a risk-based traceability program, which forensic identification will enhance.
Forensic Genetic Analysis is a Powerful Tool to Identify Species
We use DNA sequencing for species identification. Most of an animal’s cells and tissue contain DNA. We can use DNA to identify species from various samples, including fish filets, shark fins, processed seafood, dried tissue, fish scales, bone, and blood. We can even extract DNA from trace samples, such as tissue cells on a fishhook or a swab of dried blood, and heavily processed material, such as canned meat.
The Marine Forensic Laboratory uses DNA to identify species of multiple taxonomic groups of marine and anadromous fish, sharks, sea turtles, seals, whales, sea cucumber, and shellfish. In addition, we use molecular methods to determine the geographic origin or perform individualization (DNA fingerprinting) for some of these species.
In some instances, we do not require DNA for taxonomic identification. Instead, we can use morphology to identify items to the appropriate taxonomic level. Here is a partial list of our current morphology capabilities: sea turtle shells, carved ivory, and seal fur.
The Forensic Laboratory has a Quality Management System, incorporating the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) and the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) Standards. Such standards outline best practices to ensure labs and scientists provide high-quality forensic science capable of withstanding courtroom scrutiny. Our forensic scientists have over 60 years of combined experience. As Certified Wildlife Forensic Scientists, our forensic analysts undergo annual proficiency testing.